Skip to comments.A world beyond her closet prison
Posted on 12/23/2002 7:09:49 AM PST by Bubba_Leroy
A world beyond her closet prison
Girl, abused for 6 years, learning about sun, Santa with her new parents' help.
JACKSON -- She was 8 years old when she celebrated her first Christmas, and none of it made sense to her.
She didn't understand why a tree draped with lights and tinsel was placed in her living room or why wrapped packages were stacked around it.
Many children her age had stopped believing in Santa Claus, but she had never even heard of him.
Her adoptive parents tried to explain it to her, but their words were mostly abstractions. They put the tree up in October -- a month earlier than usual -- to give her more time to experience and understand the season and its rituals and meanings.
She was slow to grasp it.
Early Christmas morning, her parents placed the gifts from Santa under the tree and then went to her bedroom, video camera in hand, to wake her.
"What are you doing?" she asked her mother as she walked down the hall toward the living room.
"I'm filming you," the mother said.
"Why?" she asked.
In the living room, the girl looked at the tree and the new collection of packages and seemed puzzled. She sat down on the sofa.
"Why are you sitting over there?" her mother asked.
"What do you mean?" the girl said. "What am I supposed to do?"
"You're supposed to see if any of those presents are to you from Santa."
That was a year ago, when Christmas was only one of the mysteries parading through the young girl's life.
Everything was new to her.
"She didn't know what the sun was," said Sabrina Kavanaugh, 38, who, with her husband, Bill, 64, adopted the girl in the summer of 2001, shortly after authorities liberated her from six years of isolation in the squalid and insect-infested crawl spaces, closets and secret rooms of the houses where her family lived.
"She didn't know what a leaf was. She didn't know what an animal was. Everything was strange to her -- trees, power lines. The first time she walked on grass, she thought it was biting her," Sabrina said.
For the past 18 months, her story has riveted and repulsed those who watched it unfold through the separate trials of the mother and stepfather. The girl's birth mother was sentenced in January to life in prison, and the stepfather received the same punishment earlier this month.
Because she was sexually assaulted, she's been identified in news reports simply as "the girl," the victim of what some authorities have described as one of the worst cases of child abuse in Texas history.
She survived from age 2 to age 8, the evidence indicates, with little exposure to the outside world except the radio that blared country music at a volume that would prevent neighbors from hearing her cries when her parents and siblings were away.
How she survived is a mystery to doctors and to her new parents. When she was taken from the closet of a house in Hutchins, a small town south of Dallas, she was 3 feet tall and weighed 25 pounds -- about the size of a healthy 2-year-old.
Her abdomen was distended and her skin barely concealed her skeleton. Starvation and malnutrition had turned her hair white and brittle, and her body lacked the enzymes necessary to digest food. In her stomach, doctors found feces and a clump of wood and plastic -- fragments of a desperate diet.
"The doctors said she wouldn't have lived another three days," said Bill Kavanaugh, whose voice chokes when he talks about his daughter. "They nearly killed her, but they didn't break her spirit."
Signs of abuse
Now, on the eve of her second Christmas, she is a plump 9-year-old, outwardly happy and well-adjusted, surrounded by parents and grandparents who dote on her.
"Last year, she didn't want me to take the tree down after Christmas," Sabrina said. "She was afraid if we took it down, Santa would never come back. I left it up until March."
Above all, they are trying to help her regain the years that were lost in darkness.
By all descriptions, it was a walk through hell, and it began almost at birth.
While she was growing in the womb, her mother, Barbara Calhoun, was 21, unmarried, unemployed and living in a car with a 3-year-old daughter. As the birth of the second child approached, Calhoun moved in with friends and decided to give the child up as soon as she was born.
Bill and Sabrina rushed to adopt her. They took her home from the hospital and had no reason to think she was not their daughter to keep.
Eight months later, Calhoun, apparently prodded by her own parents, decided she wanted the child back. An 18-month legal battle ensued, and the Kavanaughs lost. Their lawyer had failed to terminate Calhoun's parental rights, and Calhoun was able to invoke a clause giving her the right to reclaim the child.
During the legal battle, the Kavanaughs had visitation rights, and they say they began noticing signs of abuse even then.
On one visit, the infant had what appeared to be cigarette burns on her arms. Calhoun said they were mosquito bites. Another time, she had bruises down one leg. She fell, Calhoun told them. A black eye? Hit a table, the mother said. Once they found her covered with ant bites. An accident, Calhoun explained.
Each time they took photographs, which did them no good in court.
"The judge told us we did more harm in taking those pictures than what the mother had done," Sabrina said. "He said they were almost pornographic."
Before the issue was settled, Calhoun moved to Jasper and married Kenneth Atkinson, a carpenter. That was the last time the Kavanaughs would visit the girl. They said goodbye to her in a Wal-Mart parking lot and drove back to their home in Jackson, 60 miles east of Dallas.
'We want her back'
"It was tough," Bill said. "We hadn't just gotten attached to her; we loved her like she was our own. Sabrina never stopped talking about her. She kept buying the Barbie dolls she had started collecting for her. Every time we went somewhere where there were kids around, she would look them over and wonder if one of them was our little girl. We always hoped that when she turned 18, she would find us and come back."
Sabrina often wondered how the girl was growing up, how she was doing in school.
They wouldn't find out until that night in June 2001, when the TV news carried a report of a child rescued in Hutchins from a house that police described as a garbage dump, reeking of human waste and rotting food and infested by insects.
The next day, the Kavanaughs contacted Child Protective Services, explained their history with the child and said, "We want her back."
"You need to see what kind of shape she's in," the worker said.
"We don't care," Sabrina told her. "We want her back."
They drove to Children's Hospital in Dallas, where they found her walking almost like a toddler.
"She looked just like she did the last time we saw her," Bill said. "She was no heavier and no taller than when she was 2."
Again, they started the adoption process, even though the doctors could not tell them the extent of the difficulties they would face. They didn't know if the child would ever achieve normal physical growth or mental development. They didn't know how deep the psychological trauma went or what its manifestations might be.
At first it was thought she had been confined to the closet for a few months. Then, evidence surfaced that it probably was far longer, possibly dating back to age 2, when the child was returned permanently to her mother.
In the summer of 1995, shortly after the Kavanaughs' visitations were halted, Child Protective Services workers in Jasper received a complaint that a child at the Atkinsons' house was being kept tied to a bed. Before they could investigate, the family moved away.
In November 1996, they appeared again on the agency's radar, this time in Wood County. They had divorced but were still living together. Neighbors complained that their children often played in the streets and ate moldy food. Again, they moved before an investigation began.
"All those years they had her locked up in the closet, and no one ever asked about her," Sabrina said. "They would go spend Christmas with Barbara's family and leave her in the closet. No one asked why she wasn't with them."
"They would go on camping trips for a week and leave her locked up," Bill said. "They turned the radio up loud so the neighbors couldn't hear if she screamed."
During those times, alone and hungry, she memorized the lyrics to many of the songs she heard, and she still remembers some of them. Her favorite is "Don't Laugh At Me," a Mark Wills tune about people who are different and want to be accepted.
Although her older sister was allowed to take her out of the closet and bathe her once a month or so, she apparently had little other human contact, except for the alleged sexual abuse by her stepfather.
She was kept at Children's Hospital until she could digest food. Once at home with her new parents, food was the biggest issue they had to deal with.
She had to be convinced that it was available when she wanted it, but care had to be taken to prevent her from overeating. The refrigerator was locked to deter her late night raids. She hid food in her room, fearful that there would be no more.
In time, Sabrina said, the girl understood, and the lock was removed.
There were other issues. Once she became frightened and ran screaming into the house when a white van drove by. Her stepfather drove a white van.
She flinched if someone near her made a sudden move or hand gesture. She didn't want to sleep alone and wanted someone with her all the time.
Asked what she likes best about school, she said, "Homework."
"She likes homework because we do it together," Sabrina said.
Although she remembers much of her past, she is slowly moving beyond it, Sabrina said. In school, she is performing like the other first-graders and has no trouble making friends.
She will talk about some of her experiences. When the subject becomes painful, she withdraws, but she is soon a happy child again.
When Barbara and Kenneth Atkinson were on trial, the family's television was usually turned off during newscasts to shield her from frightening images.
"She had nightmares for a week after seeing pictures of them," Bill said. "We didn't want that to happen again."
While her parents speak, the girl goes into the kitchen, opens the refrigerator, pours a glass of juice and smiles at her mother.
"She's happy," Sabrina said. "We're all happy now. I just hope this year I can take the Christmas tree down before March."
Since that isn't going to happen, I only hope they find the justice they deserve at the hands of the other prisoners.
What in the world??!?!?!?! Where were these loving grandparents for the last 7 years???? While the parents sit in prison, the child should sue the grandparents for imposing their expectations on this family and then just walking away.
I sincerely hope their life in prison will be brutal, miserable, humiliating, painful and very long.
And I hope this precious baby's life is happy, joyful, free of pain, full of love and acceptance, and very long.
Not advocating violence, just stating an opinion that the legal system would be much better if criminal-abetting pieces of trash didn't preside over so many of the courtrooms...
Update ping on the little girl locked in a closet her whole life. Like a poster above me says, this has a whole lot of heartbreaking and eye-opening things in it. It will really make you think. This little girl must be something special.
Really, you'd think that their fellow convicts would ask/ 'why are you here?' Wait'll a guard tells that womans fellow convicts why she's there. J. Dahmer's way of getting whacked in prison was too kind IMO.
To bad they're getting fed and off of taxpayer money too. I'd chip in 50 cents for a bullet.
Sadly she will never be normal. You can't starve kids during development and expect them to recover. She will likely never grow to be more than four feet tall and will be slightly mentally retarded the rest of her life.
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